To Err Is Human, To Learn Divine

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12th Oct 2013

3 min read

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After marking through your essay, we felt that you should enrol in ENGLB 115: English for a Later Bilingual. It will be a special class for eight of you, and we will have a professor focusing specifically on all of you to improve your command of English. The English language is crucial for your study here.

That was what I was told during my second day in my alma mater, and that placed me among the eight weakest students in English among 3,000 freshmen.

It was good exposure for me to have a dedicated professor spending one hour a week, on a one-to-one basis, on correcting my pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. She made me write six pages in English every week. Looking back, it was one of the major turning points for me. And even before that, when I was doing my A-levels in Singapore, my Civics tutor, Dr. Ho Weng Kin, and my assistant boarding master, Mr. Leong Wei Shin, went out of their way to guide me. So did my lecturers at INTEC – Mrs. Ranee, Datin Minda, etc.

I wish I had more exposure to English much earlier in my life. During my high school days, speaking in English was viewed as ‘showing off’. Thus, I hardly had opportunities to use English, except with a few teachers who were willing to use English with me. One’s environment sets the surroundings for one’s learning opportunities, though I have no regrets going to Jit Sin High School, which was a reputable educational institution.

I only wished that there was more emphasis on the English Language. We were trained to score A1 in SPM English, and we did get the A1, but we certainly were not sufficiently fluent in the language to comfortably converse with others.

I shall never forget the days when I carried a dictionary everywhere I went, or the days when I was trying to prepare for my SAT. It was torturous, as my command of the language was certainly below par. I shall never forget the days when I was just sitting in for sparring sessions in debate, trying to copy the few words that I could roughly catch, and then checking my dictionary religiously everyday.

It was those little daily steps that enabled me to give speeches in English today. The many years that I struggled were a great lesson learnt. It was really tough, and I could have given up at any moment.

Today, quite a few years down the road, I wish I had a magical pill to help fellow Malaysians who would like to be better English speakers/users. I wish I could create a greater awareness, so that students could have a better platform to learn English. I wish I could motivate those who are trying hard to learn English to continue learning and not give up.

Upon reflection, I am indebted to so many people, be it lecturers or friends, who tried to motivate me to strengthen my command of the language. They had faith in me, although the odds were stacked against me and the fruits of their labour were not too obvious, especially in the early days.

English helps us to communicate with others, and also enables us to learn from the abundant resources online or offline. Without a strong command of the language, daily communication will be affected. Productivity plummets, causing constant frustration.

To those who are still struggling with the language, or those who have not paid much attention to it, do start now! According to a survey by Jobstreet. com, the main reason for fresh graduates to not get a job is due to their poor command of English. It takes a fundamental switch in our mentality and real commitment for us to continuously work hard in our singular focus on improving our command of the language. Above all, do not give up.

If one were to ask me what my biggest transformation has been since I left high school, it is undoubtedly my command of the English language. While my English is nowhere near perfect, it enables me to explore the world, and learn from the wide reservoir of knowledge. Language is the enabler.

To sum it up, I would like to urge all readers, especially those of you who do not have a solid command of English, to take the initiative to learn the language. I learnt it quite late in my life, which is something I regret. It will be much better if you can get this right while you are still young.

Yeoh Chen Chow is an alumnus of Cornell University, and is currently a Product Manager at JobStreet.com. He is passionate about helping young people discover their potential.

Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.

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